Adventures in Scent

Much of wine’s aesthetic appeal lies in the unique sensory experience of wine aromas. Our sense of smell may be the dullest of the senses, but it is also the most mysterious and, for that reason, arguably the most alluring. The aromas that fly out of the glass and to our nose take us on an adventure, they transport us to foreign lands and different eras, they invite us into the enigmatic world of scent.

Not only is scent mysterious, it is also paradoxical. Scent is at once vivid and subtle, immediate and lingering. It can conjure in the mind images, places, memories and other sensations of euforia, seduction or relaxation. And yet, it does not exist in any concrete form. You can not touch it, or see it, or hear it, and nonetheless it makes its presence known. You may close your eyes and feel like your in a fresh, spring garden or immersed in a misty forest, only to open your eyes and find that nothing is there. At other times, the sensation can be felt so clearly and intensely, and yet you lack the adequate words to describe it. It is intangible and ineffable.

Perfume bottles

Scent is, of course, not limited to wine. It extends to nature and animals, cooking, cleaning products, soaps, candles, essential oils, and last but none the least, perfume.

In fact, perfume fully embraces the mysterious ambiance and attraction of scent. One only has to look at how it’s advertised…

Wine enthusiasts have a tendency to be squeamish about describing aromas, however perfumers do not. Especially Luca Turin, a biophysicist who works in the fragrance industry and has written a wonderful book on the science of smell, “The Secret of Scent”.

The Secret of Scent, Luca Turin

It is true that aromas come from volatile molecules, but is it the molecular shape or the molecular vibrations that determine the aroma? Turin explores both theories and beautifully illustrates how the perfumer’s quest is to find the perfect mixture between natural extracts and synthetic raw materials to create a beautiful, complex, and elegant scent. In fact, while in the wine industry aromas are expected to come from the grapes alone, the fragrance industry has much more liberty as they can and do create aroma molecules in the lab.

If aromas are derived from molecules, than you might say that they do exist in concrete form, however Turin points out that, “smell, like colour, is a biological phenomenon. It is not an intrinsic property of a molecule.”. Scent is what we feel when our smell receptors come into contact with the molecule. It exists in the relationship between substance and perception.

Furthermore, while some fragrances may be inspired by nature, they are rarely a pure representation of it. Perfumers will sometimes use certain perfumery bases rooted in natural smells as a building block, but the end result is often embellished with synthetic materials that have no equivalent in nature. With advances in chemistry, Turin suggests that the modern day perfumer has become like the abstract painter, no longer bound to realism.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez at work
Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez at work

“By and large, perfumery lost interest in depicting anything in particular as soon as abstraction became possible, when chemists started making New Smells.”

-Luca Turin, “The Secret of Scent”, pg. 18

The idea that scent is abstract, or at least can be in the world of fragrance, opens new doors to describing the sensations that arise from it. Describing wine aromas has always been predominantly focused on identifying their likeness in nature, more like a hyper-realist still life painting- but what if it could go beyond that, embracing all the complexity and nuance involved?

By way of example, here are a few wonderfully florid and expressive descriptions of scent from the perfumer, scientist and artist himself, Luca Turin…

Rene Magritte, “The Listening Room”, 1952
Rene Magritte, “The Listening Room”, 1952

“I have on my desk as I write this a smelling strip dipped in the peach base Pierre Nuyens composed for Quest… It is a huge, velvety, fluorescent peach thirty feet in diameter, with fuzz on it as deep as pile carpet, like Magritte’s huge fruit inside a room. It is a peach played slowly, an arpeggiato chord that lets you enjoy in slow motion the entire sweep of that astonishing Persian plum, from mouthwatering fruity acid, via biscuit-like softness, to powdery, almost soapy bottom.”

Lemon watercolor

“Citral is amazingly lemony all by itself, and has exactly the right mixture of sweetness, resinous zing and pungent soapiness that somehow adds up to the message ‘lemon’, with all its associations of fresh, clean and sour (I salivate as I write this).”

Maxfield Parrish, “Daybreak”, 1922
Maxfield Parrish, “Daybreak”, 1922

Lily of the valley… lands us in a Maxfield Parrish painting, bathed in eternal misty morning light: muguet territory. Muguet (curiously, the word is derived from musk) is French for lilly of the valley… the smell is wonderfully complex and delicate, somewhere between rose, cut grass and lemon, but with a fleshy, slightly raspy whiteness that recalls the eponymous lily

Abstract watercolour

“Esters are (there is no other way to describe them) transparent smells, watercolours for the nose, but they have close relatives that are more akin to pastels: the lactones.”

The smell of clean linen

Everyone has heard of musks, and some suppose them to be games smells suggestive of their provenance: the rear end of a furry animal. In fact, musks are harmless, quiet smells that patiently wait until everything else has evaporated to play their pianissimo strings. In perfumery, they play the role of both gesso and varnish. They act as a smooth, off-white backdrop on which colours look brighter, and they fill the gaps in a fragrance and give it a richer, deeper glow. What we call the smell of clean linen is actually the smell of synthetic musks developed in the 1960s.”

9 Comments

  1. I guess I’m a “subscriber” to the vibration of atoms between molecules theory or approach from a science viewpoint, I just cannot see how structure/shape of a molecule would affect our sensory perception. However I also think that molecular structure affects HOW the molecule vibrates. I guess I’m on a fence!
    I found your sentence “Scent is what we feel when our smell receptors come into contact with the molecule. It exists in the relationship between substance and perception” to be quite telling. There are instruments and techniques that will identify a specific molecule, but it will not tell us what that molecule smells like to any human being. We both know that, and that perceptions also differ from one person to another. What is interesting me at the moment is the “chemistry” behind multiple aromas in a wine, not only that some people get them all though others don’t, BUT the explanation of why individual aromas are detected at all? I started to think about this from a couple of Jamie Goode articles plus his I Taste Red Book. To plagiarise his questions ….. we walk down any street and smell bread, coffee, curry etc, NOT the individual components that make up those items. Why not? Champa and I have a joke now when there’s a curry being cooked in the house ….. “Is that jeera I smell today, I think there may be too much, but there’s also hints of cinnamon, methi and cardamom” 😂😂.
    The descriptions of scents by Luca himself in your final examples with associated painting/artwork I find quite strange. Certainly they are interesting in an intellectual sense, but they don’t particularly “appeal” to me or add to my understanding of what something smells like. Once again I think we are displaying our previous education …….. from arts to science ……… which of itself is very interesting. Our perceptions of those paragraphs are being influenced by our earlier experiences in education and/or professions.
    However, I am once again in awe of your writing and composing a post of such depth 👏👏🍾

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh good, I was worried it made no sense at all 🤣 molecule vibration makes perfect sense to me, but I have no where near the knowledge of chemistry necessary to really form an opinion. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating. Luca talks about the theory comparing it to sound and colour, which appeals to me and my interest in Synesthesia. I think he also uses such florid descriptions because when you’re trying to create a certain smell in the lab, you end up with many different variations (as mentioned in his book) and there has to be a way to differentiate between them. It’s a fresh perspective for me because it just seems so much more free and open to interpretation while still being based in science. The way wine aromas are discussed can seem pedantic in comparison. Science as art and art as science is interesting indeed!

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  2. Scent is such a personal sense isn’t it. Whether in describing the aromas of wine or experiencing the joys of perfumes. Fragrances are evocative of memories, both good and bad. They can transport you back in time to a moment that immediately becomes visual and steeped in all the senses. A beautiful post Danell. Luca Turin’s words are so poetic when describing scents. I NEED to find that book. I think I’ll go in my garden now and smell that Lily of the Valley. After I finish reading some of your posts of course. Thankful to have some time today to catch up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is very personal, intimate even! I’m fascinated by how scents easily evoke images and also how it’s related to the other senses… reminds me of your lovely wine stories. Luca Turin’s book changed the way I think about perfume and our sense of smell, but I think I told you that already. In any case, do read it if you find it, I ordered it on amazon. I know what you mean about catching up, I’ve got an inbox full of blog posts I still need to read. Enjoy your weekend and your garden!

      Liked by 1 person

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